Democratic Spirit's Strength, Advocate, 18/10/2015

I finished Fukuyama’s The End of History yesterday. It was an interesting read. As a book with such a major (and horrifying) real-world influence, what’s most striking is the incredible tone of optimism almost to the end. 

Even those final chapters about what could cause a liberal democratic regime to collapse aren’t pessimistic about problems of democracy or capitalism. He wonders if the human urge to dominate through violence will become strong enough again to overthrow the peaceful, sedate society of democracies. 

Something else that you've probably figured out from my
social media is that I support the New Democrats this
election. And even though I may criticize them on some
things, they fit my political beliefs about what a state
should do.
But the way Fukuyama discussed that peaceful, sedate society that democratic institutions forge started me steaming a little. He spoke so naïvely about democracy, as if its ideal was something that just happened once we had the right institutions and basic liberties. Like we didn’t have to work for it, or that our democracy and prosperity wasn’t so fragile.

I’ve lived in Canada over the last decade of Stephen Harper’s leadership. I can’t be naïve about this. 

You can tell from my Twitter feed and some of my posts over the last year that I’m not exactly a Harper fan. This post will clearly explain why. 

If Harper loses, which is likely, this will be my political obituary for him. If he wins, this will be a scream of rage to help give us enough energy to keep fighting him for another four years if need be.

The legacy of the Harper decade in Canada, and Harperism generally, will be given in the history books. But telling the story event by event won’t be enough to tell the whole story. 

What’s He Done?

The events are easy enough. Tax slashing that strains public services to the breaking point. Hobbling the government’s power to learn about its population, so we won’t even know where and how to provide services or what service is necessary. 

I actually supported Nathan Cullen for the NDP's
leadership, because his political history comes from
work with the environmentalist and indigenous justice
movements of northern BC. Social movements are the
real expression of democratic civilization. The people
organize themselves for action to change society.
A view of the law that’s all about punishing criminals, but no justice. The refusal to perceive how our institutions and cultural attitudes make indigenous people suffer.

Cronyist favouritism to the oil industry far beyond its overall importance to the economy. Equally cronyist concessions to Chinese companies in our resource sector. Trade, immigration, and labour policies that force working people into increasing desperation, newcomer and old stock alike.

Treating the population as suckers to be tricked and manipulated with the harshest message and communication controls in the country. The corruption. The concentration of power. The lies.

Master and Servant

A frequent term for a politician is “public servant.” It sounds quaint, but it actually means something. The essential idea of democracy is that leaders are accountable to the people they lead, first, foremost, and finally. 

That the people are the masters of the state is the slow-burning revolution of democracy as it developed in the modern West. Our principles of government revolve around transparency and accountability. 

If you want control of a machine as powerful as the Canadian (or any) state, you have to ask for it. And if you want to maintain it legitimately, you have to keep that deferent attitude toward the people.

States that suppress social movements, as Harper did with
Bill C51, are tamping down the democratic impulse.
Democracy's purest expression is people organizing
themselves to demand a better world. They call
attention to injustices that have been invisible, and
teach people the new ways of perceiving and
understanding the world that will show them how
to repair that injustice.
Harper, the Harper Government™, the whole political philosophy of Harperism is about leaving that deferent attitude behind. The government for Harperism isn’t about serving the people. 

Harperism’s main priority, when taking control of such a government, is doing everything circumstances allow to hobble, shrink, and maim the powers of government to serve almost any need of the people.

At the same time, the Harper government justified what it was doing to the Canadian people. But it used such comprehensive message control that its justifications became propaganda for its own ideology. 

Victorious Ideas

The mainstream media – our television and print/online news media – were, for the most part, allies in this process. 

Not by any direct control of the media from the government. But because the culture of the media’s management class and the culture of the mainstream political class (in both the Conservative and Liberal parties) was shaped by our right-wing think tank networks. 

If you want to know the philosophical reasons why the Harper Government™ does what it does, and so many large media outlets are pretty much okay with it, look to the Fraser and MacDonald-Laurier Institutes. And the National Citizens’ Coalition, of which Harper was president before becoming an electoral politician.

They’re the Canadian leaders among the network of think tanks that spread from Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman’s Mt. Pelerin Society. These anti-socialist advocacy and research groups have spread throughout Europe and North America since the 1950s.

When you understand the world only as disconnected
individuals, you blind yourself to many indirect and
systemic ways to understand the world and how our
responsibilities break down. Friedrich Hayek, co-founder
of the Mt Pelerin Society, meets Ronald Reagan.
They’re the intellectual vanguard of the current mainstream in Western politics, liberalism taken to its most terrifying extreme.

How Freedom Becomes Cruelty

You might find my choice of words strange, since liberal values are at the heart of our democratic freedoms. That’s true. The liberal philosophy that’s the conceptual framework of our democratic institutions and values is fundamentally about freedom.

Individual freedom is when each of us can live our life as we choose, within our physical circumstances. Liberal thinking makes this securing this freedom the essential value and purpose of politics. This idea was genuinely revolutionary.

But that individualism must always be tempered by other concerns: care and respect for others, and virtues like the humility of openness to change your views and attitudes. Otherwise, protecting your individual freedoms and their expressions can sanction terrible cruelty.

It’s the cruelty of the social media bully who refuses to stop harassing women in his interest community (gamers, sci-fi fans, whatever) who want to exercise their freedoms to support art from minority perspectives. His freedom means the freedom to shout you into silence.

It’s the cruelty of the man in Robert Nozick’s radio show story, who refuses to do for everyone else what everyone else in his community has done for him, simply because he chooses not to. His freedom means the freedom to turn his back on everyone else.

It’s the cruelty of a man who hates paying taxes for public health care or housing projects because he doesn’t consider it his problem if someone else is too poor to afford to buy a home or a medical test. His freedom means the freedom to let another rot because he’s indifferent to whether they live or die.

Harper's political philosophy is fundamentally cruel: the
core principle expressed whatever the scale on which
the state acts, is that our freedom means that we have no
obligations to each other.
The core principle of liberal politics is protecting each individual’s freedom. Freedom from tyranny is a constructive position: it clears the social space for people to determine their lives as best they can. But that isn’t enough to build a just society. It’s the bare minimum for a society of devils to live peacefully (and maybe not even that much).

Justice must combine individual freedoms with moral obligations. We must all strive for the strength of character to give of ourselves so that we can live in peace and security. Democratic justice doesn’t only require the bare minimum of restraint to keep devils in peace. It requires us to work toward being better than humanity.

Why I Fight Harper

The core principle of Stephen Harper, the Harper Government™, and Harperism is that cruelty: the cruelty of such indifference to the concerns and needs of others that it becomes hostility.

I don’t want to live in a world that runs on those principles, even though in so many parts of our economy, our politics, and our societies, they’re more and more powerful. In my weakest moments, I think that way myself. But only when I’m at my weakest.

They are the values of weak people. People like Stephen Harper and Doug Ford will tell you that they’re the values of strength: strength to assert myself, to force my freedom on the world, to build a society where only people who have the power to take from others can have anything at all.

Don’t let anyone tell you this is a strong society. It’s the character of a starving jackal killing whatever other desperate creature it can find to last another day.

I want to help build a society of people who have the strength of character to recognize others as their friends and family. People who have the strength of mind to understand the systematic nature of so many of the causes and conditions that bind us together. People who have the strength of will to care for more than just themselves.

That’s real strength.

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